Smoking And The Bandits
The cabbie was squat and unshaven and had two packs of Seneca Lights jammed into the driver’s-side cup holder. I tightened my seatbelt, and he picked up the radio. “Rails to the Rez,” he informed the dispatcher.
We pulled out of the train station onto a desiccated main drag of Mastic, NY—all tilting delis and RadioShacks—and rolled into a woodsy suburbia.
“Where exactly on the reservation do you want to go?” the driver asked, and I said anywhere on Squaw Lane would be fine. He nodded, but he probably could have guessed where to drop me without asking. I was carrying a backpack. I had just gotten off the LIRR. I was obviously a New Yorker in town to score a shit-ton of cheap cigarettes.
We drove in silence down Shinnecock Avenue, and eventually, the cab pulled into a sort of commercial cul-de-sac, a loop of concrete buffered by a variety of impromptu retail space: prefab trading posts with drive-thru windows, step-up trailers, hollowed out vans with cash registers. The same red-lettered sign was everywhere, posted on trees, affixed to walls or staked in the grass: Discount Cigarettes Sold Here, with arrows pointing in all directions. I paid the fare and stepped out onto the Poospatuck reservation.
Outside the smoke shops, the vibe wasn’t so much busy as businesslike. Middle-aged men and women—mostly overweight, almost all white—kept pulling in and parking their minivans in a row along the storefronts. In a constant cycle, customers were walking in and out of the dozen establishments with cartons of Winstons tucked comfortably underarm, unlocking their cars and setting off from the sandy parking lot in a cloud of dust. A grown man in basketball shorts and a jersey rolled by on a tiny BMX. Save for the one Unkechaug teenager hanging out and smoking on the steps of the largest outlet, I was the youngest person in sight. No one seemed to stay here for long. The urge to stock up and get out was overwhelming.
I walked into the nearest building, a one-room trailer operation with a flimsy, marble-patterned counter. A young black couple was ringing up another customer, a white-haired guy with a ’burb belly and shorts. Before I had a chance to peruse the shelves of cigarette boxes piled behind the register, it was my turn to order.
“What do you want?” the woman asked, friendly and smiling. I told her I’d take some Parliaments and, within seconds, her taciturn partner swooped the carton down from the shelf, rung it up and passed it, unbagged, over the bar. “Thanks,” I said. The man didn’t crack a smile or say a word. Two-hundred cigarettes had cost $37, or just $3.70 a pack.
Crossing the street to the big trading post, I noticed the crop of vehicles had rotated in its entirety. A woman in an SUV was ordering take-out cigarettes at the smoke shop’s drive-thru. I walked past the teenager on the steps and into the store.
The interior was wood-paneled like a replica log cabin, the floor space for buyers dwarfed by the expanse behind the counter. White kids in polo shirts punched in tallies and maneuvered around the cigarette cache, which, in its enormousness and remove, resembled a bank vault more than a convenience store. As with the last place, I had no time to consider my purchase.
“Next!” the girl behind the counter yelled, and I, still somewhat shocked at the scale of the shop, stepped up and ordered something I didn’t want.
“Do you have a carton of Lucky Strikes?” I asked. I have a fetishistic attachment to filtered Lucky Strike Reds—the bullseye packaging, the dark harshness of the taste—and even though they discontinued them in the United States around 2006, I still ask every cigarette retailer if they, by chance, keep any in stock.
The saleswoman gestured to another kid, poised tensely by the goods, to fetch my carton of Luckies. Handing over my cash, $48, or roughly 24 cents a cigarette, the girl asked if I wanted a keychain. “Sure,” I said.
Fumbling under the counter for a second, she produced a white rubber object in the shape of a number 1. Printed across the front, in the same-colored type as the “Discount” signs out front, ran the name Peace Pipe Smoke Shop and the address. My smokes slid across the counter, unfiltered Strikes. I knew this would happen.
The keychain sported a picture of a tomahawk and the bust of a mascot Indian, all shell necklaces and earrings, a Mohawk bisecting his sloping red face. I affixed the souvenir to my hip, and turned to head back to Brooklyn.
New York City currently has the most expensive cigarette tax in the country. With a combined state and city fee of $4.25 imposed on each pack sold, it is common for popular brands to run smokers in excess of $9. The logic behind the hike is simple: By burning a hole through smokers’ wallets, they will be less inclined, or less capable, of burning a hole through their lungs.
The data backing up the initiative is conclusive, but imbalanced in scope. The previous tax jump in 2002 lowered the city’s adult smoking rate by 21 percent and among high school-aged kids by 51 percent. On the day the new tariff went into effect, 311 was reportedly bombarded with 2,700 calls requesting nicotine patches, roughly three times the typical number. Still, excise taxes inevitably punish young, poor and minority smokers disproportionately to their more affluent, predominately white counterparts. Add to that the continuing ambiguity over tobacco’s place in popular culture (Mad Men offers an illicit fix of smoking porn every week), the massive disparities between states’ stamp duties and Bloomberg’s monomaniacal anti-cigarette rhetoric—and the moral and economic, if not medical, consequences of smoking—become increasingly difficult to dissect.
“Cigarettes are a legal product,” argues Audrey Silk, founder of the New York-based, pro-tobacco Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment, or CLASH. “Considering the abundance of anti-smoking ads, it’s impossible to conclude that adults are not making an informed choice. It’s a contradiction by the anti-smoking groups to claim it’s an ‘addiction’ and not a choice but insist that an increase in price is some magic bullet that will cause a person to suddenly stop.”
Silk, with a voice like a trash compactor, sounds as if she had been smoking packs in her sleep since the ’60s. For a woman who advocates for the inalienable rights of smokers, I can’t think of a more persuasive poster child to dissuade kids from lighting up. Then again, the current generation of 18- to 24-year-old smokers, myself included, are as willfully ignorant as anyone that our nicotine fix won’t eventually kill us.
I smoked my first cigarette when I was 16, and never really stopped. It was a few years later that I realized that every bit of anti-smoking propaganda I’d heard as a child was effectively true. I smoked because my friends did and because it made you look fantastic. Still, this doesn’t really explain the ostensible jump in lanky, youthful cigarette tokers you find congregating outside Williamsburg bars and NYU dorms.
Somehow, smoking seems a lot more ubiquitous among the current crop of twentysomethings than it does in our Generation X peers; a kind of anti-Darwinian narrative in direct contradiction to every clean-air, talk-box TRUTH commercial. I think I speak for a lot of medium-grade smokers when I say that I don’t believe I am addicted to nicotine: I could, if I wanted, stop at any time.
It’s a cliché that the young feel invincible, but the super-human status quo becomes a bit more complicated in the light of every bit of malignant data we’ve seen over the past couple of decades. At this point, smoking is a much more existential experience than it was 20 years ago. It is a direct confrontation with one’s own mortality: arguing, in essence, that by intentionally committing slow-suicide via cigarette, we gain a certain control over the most uncontrollable aspect of our lives. We can quit as we see fit. No one, after all, wants to sound like Audrey Silk.
In light of this philosophy—universal or specific—the bombardment of mixed messages from legislators, from the media and ultimately from the nicotine-dependent body itself makes the tax hike seem less like an ultimatum for smokers to quit than an imperative for them to find alternatives.
On the Rez
Central to this debate on how to obtain, how to curtail and how to control the flow of cigarettes into NYC is the role of Long Island Indian reservations like Poospatuck. Excepted from state taxes due to their sovereign status, New York tribes like the Shinnecock in Southhampton and the Unkechaug in Mastic have made a killing in recent years from offering tax-free goods to non-Native Americans willing to make the trek. In this sense, the New York City tax bump on cigarettes was probably the best thing that ever happened to the tribes.
“Before the tax increase, we were essentially a welfare community,” explains Poospatuck Chief Harry Wallace. “Now we’re seeing a lot of new building on the reservation, we can afford to pay bigger scholarships to send our kids to school. It’s been hugely beneficial for our people.”
Visiting the reservation, one is struck not only with the scale of the operation—a dozen or more stores within yards of each other—but the seemingly uninhibited desire to expand. All around the block, construction crews were erecting new stores, and outside the existing sellers, residents had erected mountains of cartons on foldout tables. The entire population, it seemed, had cohered around a single business model. Even Chief Wallace has his office inside a smoke shop.
Despite the Poospatuck’s peripatetic conflation of residential and retail space, the buying experience is fastidiously streamlined and shockingly uncomplicated. Walk into any number of outlets along Squaw Lane—with names like the Peace Pipe Smoke Shop, Smoke Signal Smoke Shop, Smoking Arrow Smokes—and customers are greeted by a well-staffed counter, behind which sits thousands of stacked, brand-name cigarette cartons. Tell the cashier what you want, pay with cash or credit card and an employee will dislodge your box from the pile and hand it over.
The only problem with taking advantage of these discounts is that it might be illegal. For years, New York State has attempted to levy taxes on cigarettes sold on reservations to non-Indian customers. Unable to claim tribal affiliation, the government holds, U.S. citizens must pay the stipulated consumption fees. Native American communities, on the other hand, strongly object to the state’s request that they function as tax collectors. While Governor Paterson has hinted he may attempt to enforce the excise, such an accomplishment has eluded his precursors for more than a decade. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could tax purchases made by non-Indians on reservation smoke shops. Three years later, when New York attempted to do so, Native American protestors near Buffalo lit fires in protests that shut down a number of interstates. Since then, the governors have, for the most part, let the issue alone.
New York City and Mayor Bloomberg take a slightly different line. The mayor’s Aug. 4 editorial in the New York Post speculated that the planned increase in MTA fares could be avoided should the state opt to make good on their obligation to collect cigarette taxes from reservation vendors. Contained in the proposal, however, was a far more insidious detail, ostensibly unrelated to the issue of taxation but calculated to damage the reservations’ reputation as legitimate merchants: “Failure to collect the tax not only hurts public health,” suggests the mayor, “it hurts the rest of the state’s small businesses, who must sell cigarettes at far higher prices. Worse, there’s reason to believe that tobacco smugglers are funneling profits from Indian reservation sales to terrorist organizations overseas.”
No term is more galvanizing for post-9/11 New Yorkers than terrorism. In making the claim, Bloomberg was not merely laying out an economic plan to stabilize train fares but also explicitly linking the reservations with acts of violence committed against his constituents.
The mayor’s accusation stemmed from a Congressional report from April commissioned by New York Representative Peter T. King that called for prompt investigations of cigarette smuggling operations rumored to be funneling profits to Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda.
Upon the release of the report, numerous tribes issued statements defending the integrity of their retail operations. “The Seneca Nation is equally opposed to terrorism at home and abroad, and our patriotism should not be called into question in any report brought before a Congressional subcommittee,” retorted Seneca Nation President Maurice John Sr, long a spokesman for New York Indian rights.
Poospatuck Chief Harry Wallace, typically old-mannish and soft-spoken, here becomes cataleptic: “To say that we fund terrorism is deeply offensive,” explodes the leader. “We’re an easy target for this kind of discrimination, because of our small size and the unpopularity of the product we sell. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Hard Not to Cough
Earlier this year, Rodney Mullen, the Costa Rican proprietor of the Peace Pipe Smoke Shop on the Poospatuck reservation, was arrested on charges of ordering the firebombing of a woman’s car. Apparently concerned over competition from rival tobacconists in Mastic, Mullen had initiated a minor terror campaign to intimidate his competition. After federal agents seized his business, the owner offered to put up an unheard-of $54 million to secure his bail. While the bond was refused, the incident still served as fodder for critics of the reservation’s practices, indicating simultaneously that enormous sums of money were being made in the absence of tax enforcement and that infiltrating the community from the outside, as Mullen had done by marrying a Native American woman, was not particularly difficult. While Mullen had no proven terrorist ties, the basic message gleaned from the scandal remained consistent with Bloomberg and King’s warning: Violence and disorder were inherent to the continued forbearance of the state. The reservations must be forced to tax their customers.
What these arguments fail to acknowledge is that criminal consequences occur on both sides of the legislation. While cracking down on reservation sales may mean the curtailing of certain smugglers, it also may lead to more felonies being committed in the city in the name of cigarettes. Just this July, a pair of Fifth Avenue convenience-store owners made headlines when they caught a group of thieves stuffing cartons of smokes into backpacks in the business’ storage room. Taking the law into their own hands, Mohammed Othman and his brother set upon the bandits with machetes and chased them from the premises.
“It’s painfully unbelievable to hear lawmakers complain that these sales fund terrorists when they are the ones that create the ideal conditions for that market to grow,” notes Audrey Silk. “Crimes like the attempted burglary would have gone uncommitted were it not for the lucrativeness of reselling stolen cigarettes, thanks to the do-gooders who seem happy to trade a matter of a private and ‘unhealthy’ choice for an unwanted gun at the head.”
The problem cannot be solved through excessive local taxation, or the specific targeting of a community. Rather, if Bloomberg and his supporters are serious about cracking the cigarette cartels, the approach will have to be holistic and expansive, rather than obsessive and pedantic.
If I, a sometime-smoker on a limited budget, would be willing to trudge an hour and a half out on the LIRR to purchase two cartons of smokes to last me the next couple of months, then imagine the lengths a full-fledged illegal enterprise, reliant upon finding cheap smokes for its livelihood, will go to stay liquid. Given the approach of the city so far, it’s hard not to cough.
After putting those two cartons of cigarettes in my backpack and walking back out into the dust swirl of the parking lot, I figured it would be easier to hike back to the train station than wait for another cab to show up on Squaw Lane. The reservation doesn’t end abruptly; it fades into the suburban grid of Mastic. The cigarette shops disappear, the construction sites dwindle. But little else changes. Cars of customers en route to the Peace Pipe roll by, smoke clouds billowing from the open windows. Packs of kids roam the matrix of lanes and streets with basketballs and scooters. I got completely lost and had to call my friend to Google-map me directions.
The sidewalk leading up the main drag to the railroad was littered with butts, empty Seneca packs, used condoms. I felt as if I was following some sort of breadcrumb trail out of the wilderness. The housing block opened up: Here were the twin RadioShacks again, the same Long Island Gothic deli. In the window of the convenience store were signs for Newports and Marlboros, the familiar parallel to Poospatuck’s “Discount” banners. The prices seemed exorbitant at $8.50 a pack and somehow more legitimate. The sub-criminal rush I had gotten in the Indian smoke shop was eluding me now. I wanted to return my unfiltered Luckies. I wanted to go home. The deli was empty. A fat guy in a white T-shirt hibernated over the counter.
I sat down on a bench next to the LIRR track, pulled out a Parliament and lit it. The smoke rushed into my mouth, and I leaned back in my seat, hanging on to this place between home and the sedated vision quest of the nicotine reservation. Maybe it was time to quit.
Smoking a pack of Marlboro Lights a day will cost you roughly $8.50—a total of $255 spent on cigarettes in a single month. But that doesn’t mean you need to give up your smokes cold turkey. Plenty of people are adapting their lifestyle to new ways of working around the system. Here’s a few ways to curb your spending habits—while still getting your nicotine fix.
—Compiled by Patty Lee and Ben Atkinson
Have your Southern friends ship cigs from South Carolina, where a pack of Marlboro Lights runs $3 ($90 a month shipping)
Indian Reservation: $3.50 ($105 a month)
Nicotine Gum: $70.09 a month
Nicotine Patch: $108.43 (plus there are city programs that will help you out for the first month)
Rolling Your Own: $13.95 a can/each can makes 200. Approximately $41.85 a month (plus the price of rolling papers)
Electric Cigarette: After the initial outlay of $79.95, breathing liquid nicotine will only cost you $30 a month.
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